This past week in TampaCuse, the Lightning went 1-1, defeating Montreal after losing late to the Maple Leafs. In Syracuse, the Crunch continue to struggle, going 0-3. The boys in blue and/or orange lost to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Utica, and Norfolk.
Random thoughts on the week:
1. The big news in the organization (Tampa and beyond) was Riku Helenius’ breach of contract on top of the game of goalie musical chairs played by Lightning GM Steve Yzerman and Assistant GM Julien BriseBois. In case you missed it, injuries to Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback meant Syracuse ‘tenders Cedrick Desjardins and Kristers Gudlevskis were called up to Tampa (who was in Montreal). Helenius, fresh off being pulled again (third time) by the Florida Everblades, had left the team and was suspended. The Crunch ended up using an ECHL-loaned goalie in net and due to travel complications, their new back-up was some dude who got 300 dollars and a customized jersey. Rumors of Dunkin Donut coupons were unconfirmed. Reports said 46-year-old John Parks, a local high school coach, offered to pay to play. I would have offered more. Maybe it's because I just entered my 40's kicking and screaming, but Mr. Parks is now my hero. What a story to tell.
2. Speaking of Riku… Hard to believe now he was a mid-first round draft pick at a time when the Lightning were desperate for goaltending (not the most recent time, but 2006, post-Khabibulin and Johnny Shortside). Some publications thought Riku should get a chance in the NHL within two years of being drafted because 1) he was lauded as an outstanding talent and 2) Tampa was that bad in net. His story is well-documented now, but what’s forgotten here, in my opinion, is that he’s… wait for it… a human being. When I talked to him after his preseason appearance for the Lightning this past fall, he was pretty happy with his performance (and rightfully so) and was visibly hopeful he’d get another preseason game with Tampa Bay. It didn’t happen, but he wanted/wants the opportunity for success. He’s not a slacker or a lazy player or a me-first guy. Goalies need precise focus, and here’s a guy in the last year of his contract just a few months removed from his mother passing away and he’s thousands of miles from home (if you’ll recall, he stayed in Finland for several weeks after his mother’s death late last season). Having lost my mother, I feel for the guy. It’s been a rough road for him, and while not every decision he and/or his agent have made have been the best, he’s a good human being. I think the best thing for him as a player and a person is to go home near family next year and re-start his European pro career. Best of luck to him.
3. If you follow me on Twitter (@boltprospects), you know I never shut up about Nikita Kucherov. I’ve watched a lot of hockey in my day, and what impresses me most about players are the things that you rarely see – and usually that’s an exceptional shot or exceptional vision. I have a high appreciation for players that think the game at a different level than everyone else. Like many, when I watch a game I rarely watch the puck. I like to see the big picture: where the passing lanes are and who’s doing what away from the puck. I like to identify options as they present themselves. It’s very rare that a play is made successfully via an option I couldn’t see (defensive schemes are too good, it's not that I'm smart). Yet this is what Kucherov does. He was originally thought to be a goal scorer with a nice side dish of … well, dishing… but his playmaking and vision are vastly underrated. He’s going to be a star some day… as long as he keeps his shoot/pass balance in check. Failure to do so is called "Purcelling." (Sorry, Teddy. Shoot more.)
4. JP Cote had a helluva hit against Brendan Gallagher in Montreal. Textbook. Gallagher had his head down and likely won’t make that mistake again anytime soon. Cote hit Gallagher like a sledgehammer hits a melon . If Cote had Barberio’s hair and a mustache – and you were 40 or older – that joke might make sense. Or be remotely funny. At any rate, Cote continues to do the little things well, but even he would tell you he has limitations at the NHL level. He’s great for the room and as a No. 7. His value may best be used for the organization back in The Cuse right now, though. Syracuse’s defense needs another top-4 AHL defenseman to go with Sustr, Witkowski, and Taormina. Sergeev is understandably green, Nesterov is better served as a 5-6 right now, and Mormina probably the same or at 7. Korobov has good games and bad. Witko-Taormina, Cote-Sustr, Korobov-Mormina, Nesterov/Sergeev is a defensive lineup I could live with.
5. This should go without saying, but don’t expect too much too soon from Stamkos if he returns on Saturday as projected. Hopefully his linemates don’t stand and watch to see how he’s doing. Stamkos has to fit into what TB has going right now. The train’s not stopping so he can get on gingerly.
6. Matt Peca had a strong game for Quinnipiac last weekend, scoring once and adding two assists. The Bobcats are a top-3 team again. Peca’s numbers are okay, but not where they were last year. As always, there’s a reason behind stat trends. Last year Peca was with the Jones brothers on the top line as a left winger. This year he’s been playing a 2-way center role, which will come in handy for QU next season when he’s likely the team’s top-line center. Peca was drafted as a center. I think he gets a contract after next season.
7. Jimmy Mullin’s RedHawks didn’t play last weekend, but he was a scratch again the weekend before that. You don’t like to see that from a junior, especially for an underachieving team. He’s got an uphill battle for a contract. Brendan O’Donnell has to step up his game to get a contract, too. He’s a nice collegiate player, but there are dozens and dozens of those.
8. Dana Tyrell is doing what Dana Tyrell does for Syracuse: high character, high effort, good impact. If Mike Angelidis isn’t re-signed, Tyrell (if re-signed) could be a candidate for Syracuse’s captain next year. He’s responsible and quick enough to be a serviceable fourth liner should the Lightning need a call-up. Dreams of a top-6/9 2-way role in the NHL are probably over, however, for the former Prince George captain.
9. Syracuse vets have to be better. Two years ago in Norfolk, Tampa Bay had the kids surrounded by vets who could help the team on and off the ice. And when I say “help” on the ice, I mean they were impact players, not only role players. Last year the organization made a decision to sign vet role players rather than offense-first guys in order for the kids to lead the charge. That worked, too (and seeing the success of Johnson, Palat, and Gudas at the NHL level, you can see why/how). This year, I think BriseBois probably expected more out of Rankin and Walker than they’ve received. As of this posting, Rankin has 10 goals and 17 points in 35 games, Walker 4-2-6 in 36. At least BriseBois went out and got DiSalvatore to help (4-8-12 in 18), but they’re not getting (and they need) Trevor Smith production (26-43-69 in 64 GP for Norfolk), or Brandon Segal (18-18-36 in 61 for Norfolk). BriseBois made an in-season move last year to help in this area, sending Kyle Wilson packing for Dan Sexton. Anyone else miss JT Wyman next to Angelidis? If BriseBois doesn’t make another offense-related move soon, Syracuse has no chance at the playoffs (and it's minimal as is). Don’t forget Richard Panik is going to Russia for a few weeks, too.
10. Radko Gudas has played a lot of minutes as a rookie this season, but he played a lot of minutes last year in the AHL, too. This may come as a surprise, but the NHL grind is harder than the AHL. Shocker, I know. I wonder if Gudas has hit a mental/focus wall in 2014. He’s had a lot more turnovers and questionable decisions lately and hasn’t been going out of his way for hits near as much. He could be hurt, too. Last year he had an upper body injury few knew about and he played through it.
11. STOP THE PRESSES: Ondrej Palat was rewarded for all his work with an NHL Player of the Month award. For a guy that gets so little national attention, this is fantastic. I’ve had a few healthy discussions as of late as to who is the most valuable rookie on the Lightning, Johnson or Palat? Or is it Gudas? (Slump or not, can you imagine the defense without him?)
12. I hope Jon Cooper added the following to his set-play book: “The one where Subban scores for us.” For all the bad Lightning luck this season, that was nice. Maybe he was rewarding Yzerman for naming him to Team Canada. This play can only work against the Habs. Or the Bruins when Malcolm comes up. Or Jordan when he makes the Canucks in a few years. See, this play has potential.
13. I hope everyone is open minded enough to put Mark Barberio’s rough start in the rearview mirror. He’s fun to watch when his confidence is oozing like mousse from a Vidal Sassoon bottle.
14. This is past due, but my midseason Lightning awards: MVP – Ben Bishop, Top Rookie – Tie between 9 and 18 (taking easy way out), Top Defenseman – Victor Hedman, Top Defensive Forward – Ondrej Palat, Best Story – Jon Cooper. Next time you’re standing in line at the Wulmurt, think about how bad the Lightning were defensively last year compared to this year, then think about the fact they’ve been able to do add defense while still generating offensive chances and not adding a free agent. Without Stamkos. I think Cooper should be Time’s Person of the Year. His discarded pink gum should be sold on eBay for millions.
15. So, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. As someone who would love to live in Seattle some day, I was pretty happy. Few picked them to win, and did anyone pick them to blow out the Broncos? This is why excessive game previews are useless to me. I was able to escape all of it, so I consider that a win.
16. Last week I told you to consider picking up Gustav Nyquist (keep an eye on Zetterberg's return now). I hope you did and had him in your lineup on Sunday for his hat trick. I did in one of my leagues. In the other I needed to drop someone mid-week and chose him in order to add Scrivens. Oh the desperation of finding decent goalies. This week, my advice is for keeper leaguers. If you have the keeper spots available for defensemen, look at acquiring Jacob Trouba of the Jets before the end of the year. He’s going to be outstanding. I also suggest setting a reminder to pick up Jonathan Drouin in Yahoo! leagues before the end of the year. I’ve had him sitting on my bench all year in my main (Lightning fan-heavy) league. I’m re-building after last year's championship (had to include that part).
17. Last month, accomplished Kamloops Daily News Sports Editor Gregg Drinnan lost his job when the paper closed after 80 years. Drinnan always had insider notes from around the WHL and I’d check his blog almost daily for notes on Lightning prospects (back when TB had WHL prospects). He’s still running a blog , just not with a paper. For as big as they are, the Tampa Bay Times and Tampa Tribune just have one writer each for the Lightning. Make it a part of your daily Web routine to read the work of Erik Erlendsson (Trib)  and Damian Cristodero (Times) . (Yes, I realize some of the Times' site is pay-to-read. Adjust accordingly.) You're probably already following them on Twitter, so pat yourself on the back.
BoltProspects Staff on Twitter:
Chad - @boltprospects
Pete - @jollymeangiant
Tim - @exterminatorx
Mike - @mikegallimore
Jeremy - @jghoughtaling